Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The news of the past few weeks has been filled with stories of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We’ve all been watching with horror the violent attack on Ukraine. Both secular and church leaders have condemned the war waged by Russia on the sovereign nation of Ukraine. The suffering and pain of innocent men, women, and children are simply incomprehensible for us. Lives are lost and loved ones separated from each other. We are hearing that there are now over a million refugees in Europe and thousands of internally displaced in Ukraine. People have left everything behind to flee the conflict.
Needless to say, that war is horrible. It injures, destroys, and kills in often indiscriminate and uncontrollable ways. There are no winners but only losers in wars, even if one side seemingly wins. There are also a lot of questions. Who started it? Who provoked whom? Who won it? What has it changed?
Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a New York bestseller titled “The End of History and the Last Man.” The book was received with an open arm. It provocatively and hopefully suggested that authoritarian regimes were on their way out. Of course, the end of history did not mean that events would cease, but rather that we had reached the end-point of humankind’s political evolution where democracy and liberalism is the final form of human government. The book celebrated that once and for all Marx is dead and ideological struggles are over. The book claimed that for the first time in human history, we don’t have to invent a system by which to live. We don’t have to talk or debate which form of government is better.
Some thinkers like Jacques Derrida noted religious undertone in what Fukuyama was saying. Derrida went as far as to say that Fukuyama is simply offering a Christian eschatology but without any theological references. After all, he suggested that human history has gone through the apocalyptic events of the first and second World Wars. It has survived these colossal events and reached its full potential when it comes to experiencing freedom and living in harmony with each other.
Well, Fukuyama was wrong because thirty years later, it seems very much that history is back.
Indeed, the conflict in Ukraine is very much at the forefront of our minds as we think of lent. We lament the Russian invasion of Ukraine and grieve the loss of life, destruction of homes, separation of families, displacement of peoples.
We remember Isaiah’s lament over the broken peace treaty between Israel and Assyria: “Listen! The valiant cry in the streets; the envoys of peace weep bitterly. The highways are deserted, travelers have quit the road. The treaty is broken, its oaths are despised, its obligation is disregarded. The land mourns and languishes” (Isa 33:7-9a).
Like prophet Isaiah, we watch with horror as tanks roll across national borders and one European state invades a neighbouring country. In the living memory of quite a few people, it’s an almost unknown occurrence when one European state invades the other. While still for others, it will bring back memories of war.
Either way, it took everyone by surprise. In a modern world where diplomacy has all but supplanted armed conflict, there is suddenly the gravity of warfare, human suffering, and tragedy.
The season of Lent begins under these ominous clouds of war, suffering and tragedy. But let’s not forget that suffering and human finitude are the themes of Lent itself. Lent is the season where we are brought us face to face with suffering. Intentionally. Because it is by embracing suffering we rob it of power over us.
During the traditional forty-day season of Lent, Christians are asked to reflect on the suffering of Jesus and his death sentence of crucifixion. Even in today’s reading, Jesus is involved in his own battle in the wilderness as he is confronted by the forces of evil, failing to succumb to its demands at the cost of his own perpetual suffering. We are asked to consider our suffering in life in this context. Perhaps we can find some spiritual significance to suffering and pain. I suspect, though, how difficult it is to make a connection between suffering and spirituality even though the task seems like a noble one.
It’s safe to assume that we don’t like suffering. Our usual response to pain and suffering is to avoid it. We take “pain killers” for physical pain. We also take medications to dull emotional pain. As people move toward the end of life, pain medications are further increased precisely to prevent suffering.
Rightly or wrongly, Christianity has traditionally taught people to endure suffering. There are stories of great saints who inflicted pain on themselves to be more Christ-like, including saints we usually think of as warm and gentle, like St. Francis of Assisi. Similarly, Many Protestants were taught to be stoic in the face of suffering while also receiving stern warnings against “the pleasures of the flesh.”
I am not sure what you make of the great saints who sought out suffering and pain to be more like Jesus. The best thing I can say is that I understand that as dysfunctional theology. Life has pain and suffering built in already. We don’t need to seek it out. Additionally, I am not sure if there is anything admirable about experiencing pain. I’m basing that on my own experience of sport-related injuries.
In terms of spirituality and suffering, pain and suffering can make it more challenging to engage in prayer or any kind of spiritual practice. Pain and suffering are distracting and distressing. It’s difficult to focus on anything when one is in pain. When it’s sufficiently intense, we can be cranky.
But the opposite is also true: pain and suffering can potentially make us more compassionate toward others. Experience of pain and suffering can make us aware that other people we meet may be in pain or may suffer in ways we can’t see or comprehend. Our own experience of pain can lead us to greater compassion when we encounter someone in need.
I wonder if this is why people have been drawn to the man on the cross across the centuries. Who would, after all, want to worship a God absolved of pain and suffering? This is why from his cell in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, shortly before his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned the following words: “Only the suffering God can save us.”
Bonhoeffer understood that the suffering of God is inextricably linked to the suffering of people. And so, In Christianity, the end of history is not the apparent triumph of some system of a political organization over others. It is also not a complete eradication of suffering and pain. Christian faith is not an escape route to avoid pain and suffering. How can that be when we worship a suffering God?
But rather, the only triumph we get is the triumph of forgiveness over hatred, the triumph of healing over hurt, the triumph of faith over cynicism, and the triumph of hope over despair.
In the images of those fleeing war zones in Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, and other parts of the world, we see Jesus’s suffering and death under military occupation. We remember that his own body was pierced by weapons of war. And so in this season of Lent, may we sit with that thought, and may we commit our ways to God’s ways and resist any and all alternatives.